Red Dwarf: The Promised Land | TV preview by Steve Bennett © UKTV/Gareth Gatrell
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Red Dwarf: The Promised Land

TV preview by Steve Bennett

Feature-length versions of sitcoms have, at best, a chequered history. 

But given that Red Dwarf has always had epic ambitions that defy its shoestring budget, scaling up the story to fill  90 minutes – plus adverts – is less of a stretch than most. Even so, the Promised Land story is surprisingly underdeveloped, and scenes intended to supply emotional heft feel forced, as if they have been added out of expectation that’s what a film version should do.

Crucially, though, the central core of the show – the characters and their relationships – remain intact, so there is plenty for die-hard Dwarf fans to enjoy, including in-jokes a-plenty. However, whether that’s enough to win any new converts to the cult of Lister, Rimmer, Cat and Kryten is debatable, even if the script does take steps to include the backstory for newbies.

For example, despite having been the last remaining human for the past 32 years, Lister (Craig Charles) starts this story with a newfound wistfulness about his situation, three million years into the future. An excuse to re-explain the premise for the uninitiated, perhaps?

As most viewers will know, over those millennia, Lister’s pet cat evolved into his ultra-vain travelling companion, played by Danny John-Jules. But also, it transpires, a whole race of feline humanoids. Down the aeons, Lister has become a Godhead to them, so when he appears in the flesh, one particularly devoted sect believe he is the second coming whose miracles will save them from their tyrannical leader. The gag that for all their civilisation these feline-people still behave like pet cats is wrung for all its worth, and then some. As indeed are the allusions to primitive 1990s technology.

Once the premise is set it’s a familiar story of rag-tag rebels versus an evil empire, with the boys from the Dwarf getting into one scrape after another. However, the way they escape from each predicament in increasingly convenient stretches of the show’s elastic reality becomes unsatisfying. 

The odd-couple dynamic between slobbish Lister and the hologram of ineffectual, by-the-book, cowardly egotist Rimmer (Chris Barrie) remains the axis on which the comedy hangs, and is as effective as ever when they trade banter. Attempts at gravitas courtesy of Rimmer’s out-of-character existential crisis are more strained, however, proving that the codependent nature of their reluctant friendship better is better left unsaid.

Robert Llewellyn, as subservient robot Kryten, remains the comedy dummy, cheerily naive and always amusingly getting the wrong end of the stick; while Danny John-Jules’s preening Cat is underused, surprisingly given the storyline. 

The decades-old chemistry between the cast brings a sense of fraternity, while some of the funniest moments come courtesy of Norman Lovett, making a welcome return as Red Dwarf’s deadpan computer Holly. Advisedly, he’s used sparingly but effectively here, including a wry 2001: A Space Odyssey spoof and his froideur in launching a high-risk rescue bid when the crew get  their tiny shuttle Starbug stuck on a hostile moon.

Entertaining as the result is, there’s the nagging feeling that half-hour episodes remain a better format for the show, where it’s easier to forgive too-convenient plot developments in the name of expediency and where in-jokes don’t outstay their welcome.

But if you’re a Red Dwarf fan, you’ll be immune to such criticism – in which case fill your boots on the return of the understandably much-loved characters.

• Red Dwarf: The Promised Land is on Dave at 9pm tonight.

Review date: 9 Apr 2020
Reviewed by: Steve Bennett

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